Saturday, May 10, 2014
From My Collection: Brokeback Mountain Movie Review
I read “The New Yorker” magazine with some regularity. Each issue has a short story included that I usually start, but don’t finish. They rarely grab hold of me. But I went back and took a look at E. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” which first appeared in October 1997. It is an absolutely brilliant example of economy of story and character development. She squeezes more information into a single line of dialogue than other writers can get onto a page and fifty times the words. She won an O. Henry award for the story.
Of course the story was adapted into a feature film released in 2005, directed by Ang Lee and written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Brokeback Mountain is such an incredible piece of movie storytelling that maintains the essence of Proulx’s story (virtually every detail down to lines of dialogue were included) and, while it expands the characters and situations to fill out the running time to feature length, still manages to be a master class in economy of language. The general rule of thumb for filmmaking should be never to have characters explain through dialogue what can be shown in images. When it comes to the story’s main characters, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, they rarely have the possibility of talking to anyone about what’s going on. So McMurtry and Ossana were forced to leave feelings unspoken and for Lee to devise ways of expressing thoughts through a facial expression or body language.
Jack and Ennis meet in 1963, a couple of young ranch hands in Wyoming who take a job working together herding sheep on the eponymous mountain in the summer. They slowly share stories and get to know each other and then one night, unexpectedly, they have a fiercely aggressive sexual encounter. Jack initiates and Ennis at first resists, but then succumbs and becomes the dominant of the pair. Their bond strengthens through the remainder of the summer, although Ennis is quick to insist, “I ain’t queer.” Jack, not one to easily get caught out, responds, “Me neither.” The message is clear: something is happening here that can never be admitted or spoken. After they part ways, the story tracks them as they each marry separately – Jack to Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and Ennis to Alma (Michelle Williams) – and begin a long friendship and relationship of the course of several years during which they see each other
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jack, the more delicate of the two. His features are more boyish, his voice a bit higher pitched than Heath Ledger’s (as Ennis) gruff closed-mouth delivery. Together they are two different, though not necessarily contrasting, images of masculinity. Their assertion that neither is “queer” is not, strictly speaking, a denial, but rather symbolic of a limitation of understanding and a lack of vocabulary to describe their feelings. Readings of the film as either gay polemic or a story of forbidden love are limiting and misunderstand the fundamental core of Proulx’s and Lee’s argument.
For these two boys, who develop into men as the story progresses, their culture of being raised on Wyoming ranches, their hard-wired understanding of what it is to be a man, and the definition of love have forced them into a certain mode of living. They are iconic representations of masculinity that we have been handed through countless western novels, films, and TV series. Their close bond is the fulfillment of the masculine fantasy that binds all the cowboy pairs in history. The western genre depends on that masculine bond that stops short of being anything more than friendship between men. Jack and Ennis get to live and express the full feelings that have been forbidden to men in their position for decades. And as we stand witness to it, it’s meant to make us uncomfortable (even those liberal viewers have been indoctrinated by a certain type of masculinity in the west) and to question what it means to be a man.
On one hand, there is Jack, the softer version of masculinity, emasculated repeatedly by his father-in-law, sidelined at the birth of his son, passed over when it comes to raising the boy and impressing upon him what it means to be a man until finally he puts Lureen’s father in his place, switches off the football on TV, and carves the Thanksgiving turkey himself, thank you very much, while, for the first time we’ve seen, Lureen looks on proudly at the prospect that maybe she did marry a “real man.” Ennis, on the other hand, is all macho preening. He’s the “top,” both literally and figuratively, in the relationship with Jack. He also forces Alma to submit to the only kind of sex that truly satisfies him, while most likely convincing himself that because it’s with a woman, he’s still a “man.” While Jack’s shift from a more subordinate role in his marriage to something more dominant appears to help him, Ennis’s continuing dominance over Alma slowly erodes his marriage. Alma’s knowledge of his relationship with Jack puts her in a position of believing his manhood to be a façade. When Ennis exposes his more traditional dominant masculine traits, Alma recoils. We first see this exposure when he beats down two foul-mouthed drunks at an Independence Day celebration. He stands triumphant with fireworks exploding in the sky above him while Alma shields the girls from aggression she disapproves of. It’s an iconic and completely ironic image that sums up the theme as one of America’s foundation being built on hypocrisy.
Brokeback Mountain forces us to question everything we think we know about a long tradition of cowboy friendships and tough guys. But the truth is that, while this wonderful depth and subtlety in the text and filmmaking makes it worth watching, its soul is in the emotional resonance. The two aspects work in concert with one another, weaving in and out to create one of the great movies of the first decade of the new millennium. I can hardly find another example of a movie relationship that has moved me as forcefully as when Ennis looks at his old friend Jack’s denim shirt, hung next to a postcard featuring the mountain where they first knew each other, and mutters the simple words, “Jack, I swear…” Swears what exactly we don’t ever find out. It’s a simple and deeply transfixing moment that, like the rest of the movie, grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. I swear, indeed.